Creating a common language to address online harm

Online harm is a growing menace worldwide

Online harm is a growing menace worldwide Image: Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

Julie Inman Grant
eSafety Commissioner, Office of the eSafety Commissioner
Adam Hildreth
Founder, Crisp
Minos Bantourakis
Head of Media, Entertainment and Sport Industry, World Economic Forum
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  • The global reach of the internet and the nature of online harms require global collaboration to advance online safety.
  • There is a critical need for creating a common foundational language for online harms to enable effective multi-stakeholder discussions.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety has published The Typology of Online Harms to facilitate a common understanding and support efforts to address the various harms.

In this digital age, our global society has become intricately woven together through the power of the internet and various online services. This vast digital network has ushered in numerous benefits, bridged geographic divides, facilitated access to knowledge and promoted a global exchange of ideas.

The very features that make the internet powerful, however, can also facilitate a spectrum of online harms that impact societies and individuals across the globe. As of April 2023, two out of three of the global population — over 5 billion people — utilize the internet. Among these users, numerous individuals, particularly children and marginalized groups, are exposed to various online harms.

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What is the Forum doing to improve online safety?

According to Ofcom, a United Kingdom regulator, when navigating the digital realm, a disconcerting 62% of internet users aged 13 and up confront at least one potential online harm in a four-week span, with scams, fraud and phishing as the most prevalent threats. According to the International Telecommunications Union, around 80% of children in 25 countries report feeling at risk of sexual abuse or exploitation online, while over a third of young people in 30 countries have experienced cyberbullying, with such distressing experiences leading one in five of them to skip school. There is also a 'digital disconnect' between the kinds of harmful content young people are encountering online and their parent's awareness of these experiences. The Australian eSafety Commissioner's Mind the Gap Research found that 71% of teens were coming across seriously harmful content and only half of their parents were aware.

These statistics reflect the real-life impact and reach of online harms around the world and necessitate a global response. There is a lack of universally accepted definitions of online harms, with numerous fragmented interpretations of harms, such as cyberbullying, doxing, hate speech and explicit content. This lack of shared understanding has led to fragmented definitions and an inability to comprehensively address the issue. Without a common definition of online harms, consolidating views and data for informed decision-making is impossible, hindering the development of effective safety protections, prevention efforts, and interventions in response to these challenges.

From this context, there emerges the need for a common lexicon and recognition of existing online harms that can foster an international understanding and facilitate multistakeholder collaborations. The World Economic Forum's Global Coalition for Digital Safety recognizes the need for unifying disparate definitions and it is proposing The Typology of Online Harms to address this gap. This will serve as a comprehensive framework for understanding the many varieties of online harm and developing a foundational language.

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Addressing these harms and fostering digital safety requires a delicate balance of legal, policy, ethical, social and technological considerations across the digital ecosystem’s many cultures, regulations, languages and norms. As recommended in the Global Principles on Digital Safety, despite this complexity, the need for a shared understanding and common language is paramount. Global collaboration on tackling online harms can only be achieved through mutual comprehension.

With a focus on fundamental human rights, the Typology acknowledges that all harm types can potentially lead to an unlawful denial of participation and freedom of expression and these rights must be balanced against an individual's right to be free from online harm and a right to dignity.

Content, contact and conduct

The Typology, however, is not meant to be prescriptive, it does not assign severity ratings to online harms, nor does it act as a strict guide for regulatory compliance. Furthermore, the typology is focused on online harms impacting individuals and society, but cannot be considered fully exhaustive of all types of harms (e.g. animal cruelty). The framework categorizes online harms into three areas: content, contact and conduct. Content relates to harm originating from problematic online material. Contact refers to harm occurring through online interactions. And, conduct covers harmful behaviours enabled by digital technology.

As part of the Toolkit for Digital Safety Design Interventions and Innovations, The Typology complements other outputs by the coalition that aim to define online harms and identify the potential technology, policy, processes and design interventions that will advance digital safety in a rights-respecting manner.

It builds on the foundations established by the Global Principles on Digital Safety, a publication that underscores the necessity for a shared understanding of online harms. It also supplements the Digital Safety Risk Assessment In Action by facilitating the definition and categorization of harms that require risk assessment.

This report was developed through the collective input of stakeholders representing diverse backgrounds, including regulators, big tech companies, universities, NGOs and civil society organizations.

The Typology aims to provide various stakeholders, including governments, online service providers and civil society, a useful tool to empower them to understand, discuss and address online harms effectively, ultimately fostering online safety. Though the digital landscape is fraught with challenges, through collaborative action and a commitment to human rights, it is possible to create an online world that is safer and more inclusive for everyone.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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